FAIRFIELD — “A friend will never lead you to danger.”
Seventeen-year-old Nadja Allen embraced that slogan from the Alive & Free program at the Matt Garcia Youth Center. Succumbing to peer pressure and being manipulated is something she watches out for these days. She evaluated her friendship circle and who she “surrounded herself with,” she said.
“If they pressure you to do (something dangerous), they’re not your real friends,” she said.
Coming or going, it’s hard to miss the turquoise- and orange-painted messages to live by above the main door of the youth center. Another is, “You are only one bad decision away.” Also, “Respect comes from within.”
Not only does the painted area block the sun from beating into the front reception area of the youth center, joked Will Bible, the sayings give teens words to live by.
Bible, the program coordinator at the youth center, is one of the forces behind the new Alive & Free class that takes place at the youth center on Friday nights. Bible said there are many messages from the program, but he said the five painted above the door “are the ones we get the biggest response from.”
The class, with roots in violence prevention, is all about rethinking a programmed response to any given situation. It gives teens alternatives to wrong choices.
“They don’t (always) realize they have choices,” Bible said.
Bible’s lead example dealt with the word “tattletale.” Oftentimes noted as a negative name, he said as the youths grow, the word grows with them into an even more negative word – that of “snitch.” Bible said the process leads youths to think, “I’m not going to say anything, because I don’t want to snitch.”
“We try to deprogram what they’ve been learning over the years,” Bible said. He said it’s not an “overnight change.”
“They have to want to do it,” he said. “I can’t expect (them) in one hour of class to change a process that has been happening for 15 or 16 years.”
Bible and a couple of others attended a weeklong training program in November. The program was started 23 years ago by Joe Marshall in San Francisco. He also founded the San Francisco Omega Boys Club. His radio show, “Street Soldiers,” has been on KMEL for years.
The class at the youth center didn’t start until January, but staff started implementing the program within the youth center immediately – including putting up the messages, which Bible said brought about a lot of questions.
“Being kids, they asked about the signs,” Bible said.
Initially, there were only about four in the class – Allen and Eduardo Gutierrez, 15, an Armijo High School student, were two of them. Now they have up to 15 teens each Friday night.
The classes give them a chance to apply real-world events to their situations, blow off some steam by talking and learn different ways to handle tough situations – all within a set of guidelines that Bible sets forth at the beginning of each class. They also know that “what goes on in here, stays in here,” Bible said.
“We get some kids that spill their guts,” he said. “We’ve had some pretty personal things told and not gotten out.”
Chuckling, Bible said that initial reaction from the teens was, “I’m just going to listen to Will.”
“You’re always skeptical of new things,” said Allen, a graduate of Sem Yeto High School. “I didn’t know what the class was about. As time went on I embraced it and I learned from it.”
Gutierrez came prepared to be bored, he said. He began to find it interesting, however, and it’s changed his way of thinking. Gutierrez said he used to make a lot of poor decisions.
“I started thinking about the right decision to make,” he said. Not only for himself, but he also said he encourages his friends to make the right decision, too.
“If you want to become a better person, you have to take the first step,” Allen said. “Alive & Free is a good first step.”
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.